Rich-Joseph Facun captures the people and places of Appalachia in an effort to connect to his new home

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In his latest book, Black Diamonds, the American photographer documents his experience as a person of colour living in a former coal mining centre in the east of the US

After moving to southeast Ohio, American photojournalist Rich-Joseph Facun stopped working for some time, instead enjoying a slower pace of life amid the Appalachian Mountains. But after two years of skateboarding and homesteading, he felt a familiar itch to capture his unfamiliar surroundings: former coal mining boomtowns in a place often stereotyped as the heart of “Trump country”. 

One day outside a doctor’s office, he saw a man with steely blue eyes, piercings, and the word “damaged” tattooed across his forehead. Facun sat in his car contemplating whether or not he should photograph him. “I grabbed my camera, got out of the car, and went over to his window, knocked on and just introduced myself.” Facun asked if he could make his portrait, and when he did, “tears started coming down his face,” he remembers. “And I was like, oh my gosh…It just lit the fire.” 

That portrait was the first of what would eventually become Facun’s latest book Black Diamonds, which documents the people and places of Appalachia in an effort to connect to his new home. In addition to his intimate and honest portraits of people, Facun photographs animals, homes, landscapes, and abandoned “ghost towns” – empty, derelict places which were once booming coal mining centres. Locals refer to the area as the “cities of black diamonds”.

Erik: Athens
Appalachian Foothills: Nelsonville

Facun’s images capture a post-industrial decline: homes on the brink of collapse, car skeletons, old mannequins in store fronts. But where there are moments of tragedy, there are also beacons of energy, often found in the people depicted by Facun’s lens. “What got me started into this is that I got to reconnect with my community,” he reflects.

But Black Diamonds isn’t just about how Facun sees Appalachia. It’s also about how these poor, predominantly white communities see him. Facun, who is of indigenous Mexican and Filipino descent, explores questions of place and identity amid political and geographic polarisation. Though the vast majority of his experiences have been positive – like “bliss” – Facun has at times feared for his safety. 

In one instance, a woman posted a warning in a community Facebook group: “This Mexican guy came to my house and asked to photograph me and my daughters and I told him no… Be careful out there.” Facun visited the police station to introduce himself and stopped wearing his trademark cap in the hopes that people wouldn’t recognise him. As he explains, he didn’t want people to fear him, or worse, hurt him. All it would take was “one person who read that post and was looking for a reason to go after somebody like me…I felt crushed”.

Olivia and Benjamin: Glouster
Cob House: Millfield

After this event, Facun spent some time working up the courage to talk to people. His first portrait back on the saddle was of an older, bushy-bearded man who showed Facun a map of the coal mine he used to work in. “I feel like I must have an affinity for people that even if they don’t look like me, I see them as being like me…There’s some type of esoteric connection,” he explains.

Black Diamonds transcends stereotypes of Appalachia, instead documenting Facun’s more nuanced experience as both a member of and outsider to its communities. In turn, his photographs bridge the distance between him and his new home.

Black Diamonds by Rich-Joseph Facun is published by Fall Line Press.

Nurit Chinn

Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Yale University with a degree in English Literature, Nurit has published work in Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, and the Yale Daily News.